Altering social attitudes

It is important to see how difficult it is to bring a swift change in social behaviours

China, earlier the epicenter of the deadly coronavirus, and Iran, which has seen an exponential increment in the number of cases over a month, share borders with Pakistan. Travellers from Iran, in particular, have put Pakistan at an increased danger of further spread of the virus.

Currently, Pakistan is in the containment phase. Its capacity to respond to this outbreak needs surveillance, effective community engagement and awareness. The government has formulated a national action plan to combat coronavirus. Along with other steps, this policy focuses on community engagement, development of a sense of responsibility, inculcation of civic sense, and awareness about protection.

The rapidly increasing number of cases in Pakistan reflects the country’s vulnerability. And a weak health infrastructure adds to the public fear of a looming health crisis.

The federal and provincial governments, especially in Sindh and the Punjab, have taken some measures to contain person-to-person spread of the virus. The closure of all educational institutions; postponement of mass exams; and complete closure or restricted operations of shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, public recreational places, marriage halls etc are some of the measures taken by the government.

While most parents are happy with the closure of educational institutions keeping in mind the safety of their children some families are struggling to cope with the new situation.

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“Working from home might be a possibility for some parents but many jobs cannot be done remotely. That means parents can lose pay for the days they don’t work, or even lose their jobs entirely,” says Dr Hina Khan, a parent of two. She says that a joint family system can serve well in this situation for those who are supposed to go on a job even during the current circumstances. Some parents may be able to work from home and supervise their children at the same time, but she adds, “That’s not always possible”.

During a recent address, Prime Minister Imran Khan seemed to dismiss the idea of shutting down whole cities saying that the country could not afford the economic cost of such an action. But the government has asked people to limit their physical movement and alter their social interaction, including the traditional way of greeting one another – handshakes, hugs etc.

“Reason and logic are nowhere evident in our attitudes,” says Dr Muhammad Zakria Zakar, the former dean of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of the Punjab

In this context it is important to see how difficult it is to bring a swift change in human social behaviour. According to Harvard Health Publishing by the Harvard Medical School, a ‘successful change’ comes only in stages – how long that takes is an individual matter. “No matter when we decide to make a change, or how strongly we’re motivated, adopting a new, healthy habit, or breaking an old, bad one, can be terribly difficult. But research suggests that any effort you make is worthwhile, even if you encounter setbacks or find yourself backsliding from time to time.”

“It is very difficult to alter our social attitude towards person-to-person interaction while being part of the subcontinental Muslim culture,” says Rizwan Safdar, a sociologist. Speaking about social distancing, he says that most efforts to change health-related behaviours in under-developed societies like Pakistan have had limited success at best.

“The established reflex of socialisation of any society is very hard to alter in a short period of time whether because of a disease or an expected outbreak of a disease.”

While people are coming round to the idea of social distancing and are observing lockdowns in regions hit globally by the virus, in Pakistan, this appears to be a challenge for now. Apart from the government-sanctioned bans on large public gatherings and mass socialisation, people’s attitudes towards the virus appear to be casual.

The Pakistani society’s lack of trust in science is a serious issue according to Dr Muhammad Zakria Zakar, the former dean of Behavioural and Social Sciences at the University of the Punjab.

“I am certain that our society is simply anti-science,” he says while talking to The News on Sunday. “Reason and logic are nowhere evident in our attitudes. We often take pride in our hatred and mocking of scientifically round practices,” he adds.

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The societal approach has zero concern for developing scientific reflex for handling nature or combating diseases, he adds. “This means something serious is wrong with us.”

Dr Zakar believes that while it is always difficult to swiftly alter social behaviours in any society, in Pakistan, it looks like an almost impossible task. “Another dangerous phenomenon is that we consider ourselves flawless, and are simply not ready to accept any change that scientific evolution demands of human beings.”

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at

Coronavirus: Altering social attitudes